(For background to this blog post: https://wordjourneyer.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/every-disease-is-a-heart-disease/)
On my way to visit Dad I heard over the radio the axiom: if you can’t find the bright side of life, polish the dull side. I resolved to share with him this newly learned wisdom, as soon as I had arrived at the aged care facility he had moved into not long after his 65th birthday. His reaction: “Bullshit.” For better or worse, a dry, stubborn sense of humour had been one of Dad’s genetic gifts to me. Fortunately, for my older half-brother and sister, younger brother, and me, his Parkinson’s disease had (at time of writing) not been and I hope won’t be. When I visited him a few weeks or months earlier, on a hot day, one of the nurses had given him a glass of water. When she went to take it back from him, he played with her; withdrawing the empty glass repeatedly from her outstretched hand until finally releasing it to her. He can tell me he’s sick or dying (neither which is exactly true in any conventional sense) until he’s blue in the face, but if he tried to suggest he didn’t still have a sense-of-humour I’d laugh, then quickly stop laughing, then reply, simply: “No.”
I don’t remember when he was diagnosed. All I remember is that he surely had it a few years before it was finally discovered. And the years since – despite DBS (deep brain stimulation) and endless juggling of different medications – have proven little better and often much worse. Within the context of his disease only, of course it’s the negatives that stand out. Like the time he’d tried a new form of medication and started hallucinating; at one point in the early morning yelling out: “Hey Colin! How do you piss out of a plane!?” while himself using the bathroom. Or the time I’d heard a loud THUMP downstairs, ran down them, screamed “DAD!” upon seeing him lying motionless on the floor, then felt relief when he groaned and was ok despite the fall. And when, after we’d moved to a single story house, he’d be suffering insomnia – the major symptom of his Parkinson’s (but not necessarily everyone’s) – and wandering into my room on a semi-regular basis.
Moving Dad into a nursing home had not been any easier, emotionally, than enduring his troubles more closely with him. But, as his up until then primary carer, it was certainly easier on Mum – in practical but of course not emotional terms. A principled as she is loving and caring (yet sometimes stern) woman, she early on determined to stick with him for better or worse, for richer or poorer. But during early 2015 he had surgery in Brisbane to relieve stomach and chest pains. As a consequence of the (otherwise successful) operation, he began suffering delirium, languished in hospital for a couple more months, and on discharge was admitted straight into a pleasant, modern yet naturally solemn Gold Coast nursing home. He now spends his time surrounded by generally much older and more infirm people, which does nothing to improve his state-of-mind.
Fortunately, all of Dad’s family, besides his sister in Victoria, and daughter about an hour north-west of Brisbane, live close enough to visit him at least once a week. He smiles sometimes, usually if one takes the opportunity to stir pleasing memories from his past. Or make light of them in a not disrespectful manner. I discovered, or had forgotten, on a recent visit with Mum that Dad during his professional footballing days had been nicknamed Magic. I cracked: “Was that what the ladies called you, Dad?” He grinned, and Mum playfully reprimanded him. We all had lunch with him on his 66th birthday in the BBQ gazebo outside his new and we still hope not permanent home. And again had an early Christmas lunch there two weeks before my older sister and brother had to leave for engagements with their partners’ families on the 25th.
Dad didn’t make it home for Christmas Day, 2015. Probably for the first time, now I think of it. My brother and his girlfriend drove me to visit him in the morning. I went in first. Dad has trouble handling too many visitors at once. Mum had spent an hour or so with him earlier in the morning. He complained of being sick. Then he said something that, suffice to say, was depressing to hear from one’s father. He also told me to tell my brother not to come in (which I did, but added that he should go in anyway). I wished him a Merry Christmas (it’s unlikely dad had any enduring idea what day it was), and left. This is it now, when it comes to Dad. I tell him I love him a lot more these days. Not because I’m worried he’ll be dead soon, but because I’m sure he’ll be gone soon, besides. A man who appeared godlike when I was a child, a stern bore when I was a teenager, a fountain of wisdom during my 20s; now, a memorial combination of all three encased in a body controlled by a brain that is swiftly failing him.
Dad was a professional Australian Rules footballer back in his heyday. The past, in a wonderful way, is catching up with him. Mum’s been receiving video testimonials by players from the Geelong West (Roosters) Football Club’s arguable, as far as I know, peak during the late-‘70s/early-‘80s. It’s not important what exactly what they say in the videos, about their playing days or the club or dad. What’s important, humbly, is what I observed after watching them with my mum, her parents, my younger brother, his girlfriend, older brother, his wife and two children (during Good Friday 2016): “Dad, what we’ve just finished watching is people we don’t even really know telling us things about you that we already know.” To which he responded to the effect that that was a wonderful thing to say. I responded: “Well it’s just the truth, isn’t it?” And it was. I said nothing special, but I said it (because someone had to) plainly truthfully about a man who is special to more people than he still probably realises.
We’re planning on videoing Dad, mainly for his own benefit if he’s up to it but also for the blokes down south who’ve without exception spoken so highly of their memories of him. And also for us, too. For posterity. Dad is still Dad. He’s not well. But he’s also not a vegetable, and nor is he dead. If we can capture him recalling what was one of the (if not the) highlights of his life, we can pass those memories along the outgoing branches of our family tree, forever. Dad’s father was an abusive alcoholic, and died when I was very young. (In fact one of my earliest memories was of dad’s dad lying in a hospital bed, dying of (from memory) prostate cancer, and dad standing nearby – both ashen faced – and then the door closing.) Mum’s father died after being kicked by a horse, when she was seven. I’ve never known a blood-related grandfather. And nor might my children. So my hope is that if we can take dad back to a happy past, however momentarily, and capture it, it might help my children, and their children have happy futures. I hope they’ll learn that the past, though sometimes sad, was also joyous, rich, bright; happy – and so too can be their futures.